Wildlife gets grazing land in park swap

Billings Gazette Wyoming Bureau


Since the late 1950s, the Walton family has grazed cattle on an 87,500-acre public allotment just outside Grand Teton National Park.

Things went smoothly until about 10 years ago, when more and more grizzly bears began using the same land. Soon, the allotment saw more conflicts between livestock and bears than at any other grazing allotment in the Yellowstone ecosystem. On one night alone, wildlife managers were tracking nine grizzlies roaming the allotment.

"It became a true nightmare," said Hank Phibbs, a Jackson attorney who represents the Waltons.

A deal announced Friday will end that "nightmare" by retiring that grazing allotment, paying $250,000 to the Waltons to find a new place to graze and opening up a parcel of land crucial for grizzlies, elk, moose, bison and other wildlife.

"We've been looking at conflict resolution packages for bears and wolves and knew that allotment was a place where there had been chronic problems," said Tom France of the National Wildlife Federation, one of the conservation groups that helped put the deal together.

The agreement will permanently end grazing on 137 square miles of the Bridger-Teton National Forest. The land, known as the Blackrock/Spread Creek allotment, abuts Grand Teton about 20 miles south of Yellowstone.

The deal is similar to one brokered earlier this year when conservation groups paid to help an Idaho ranching family move off a 2,400-acre grazing allotment just west of Yellowstone.

The tactic is becoming more common among conservation groups, especially because it involves ranchers as willing sellers, provides quick results and avoids long and costly court battles over grazing.

"It's a pragmatic solution that honors the needs of wildlife while recognizing the legitimate economic concerns of the livestock producer," said Hank Fischer, special projects coordinator for the NWF.

While the Waltons are grateful for the agreement, it's bittersweet because that grazing allotment had been part of a long-running family business that prided itself on its stewardship of the land.

"Losing that allotment was like cutting out part of your heart," Phibbs said. "It was a difficult decision but at the end of the day ... these groups (offered) an opportunity to get out of that nightmare. Our hats are off to them."

Earlier this year, NWF raised $250,000 from a diverse group of donors to pay the Waltons as an incentive to retire their grazing privileges. The family then waived their grazing permit back to the Forest Service, which has since decided to close 74,200 acres. The fate of the remaining 13,300 acres will be decided when the agency rewrites its forest plan in 2005.

"This was a difficult decision to make," said Kniffy Hamilton, the forest supervisor. But, with more than 100 wildlife/livestock conflicts on the land in recent years, she said, "closure of this allotment makes the most sense."

The Walton family will turn its attention to finding private pasture for grazing, Phibbs said.

Meanwhile, the allotment, which is 25 miles long and about seven miles wide, will host only wild animals.

"The wildlife values for this piece of land rival any found in the greater Yellowstone, even those within the national parks," said Steve Kilpatrick, a Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologist.

As many as 25 radio-collared grizzlies have used the land in recent years.

The land also provides wintering and calving range for 800 to 900 elk, an important migration corridor, home for an increasing number of bison and is adjacent to the den site for the Teton wolf pack.

"The level of wildlife activity in this area has made it a serious challenge to raise livestock there," Kilpatrick said.

Fischer said grazing retirements are an effective "market-based" tool to rearrange grazing on public land. The NWF, he said, only works with willing sellers using allotments that have significant conflicts with wildlife.

Major partners in the Walton ranch deal included Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Heritage Foundation of Wyoming, the Charles Engelhard Foundation, Vital Ground, the Cougar Fund, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the Wiancko Family Fund and the Arthur B. Schultz Foundation.


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